A look at the latest developments in communications technology

Jenny Keefe looks at the latest developments in communications technology and ponders the advantages of podcasts and social networking sites

When law firm Allen & Overy banned staff from accessing social networking website Facebook earlier this year, employees were outraged, and the firm was eventually forced to lift the ban.

If benefits could inspire even a fraction of this kind of passion, HR departments would be thrilled. Yet it is possible to harness the power of the web to communicate employee benefits and there’s now a galaxy of high-tech ways to communicate with staff.

This is a far cry from when employers relied on paper to communicate perks. Charlie Carrick, director of Orbit Benefits, says: “It’s easy to forget that before the ease of the internet, communications were limited to hard copy or face-to-face. They were seldom instantaneous. New tools to reach out and grab people ensure [they] start to engage and take control.”

One step employers have taken is to unleash the internet’s power, with a high number now using email and the internet to communicate schemes. The shift means employers can easily target communications to specific groups of staff. “Data is king: if you know age, gender, salary, location, family circumstances and job roles, you can efficiently tailor benefits and communications to meet their different needs,” says Carrick.

He advises employers to not tailor the content of the communications, but also the type of media to fit individual demographics and interests. “Disparate workforces require different communication channels to be effective. The old methods of cascading information through management lines means messages can get lost in translation, and hard copy can be dry and unappetising for lots of people,” he adds.

Employers can also target messages to incredibly specific groups of staff, particularly around flexible and voluntary benefits. HR can quickly email staff to highlight what they are missing out on. Chris Bruce, director of marketing and technology at Thomsons Online Benefits, says: “You can generate powerful management information spontaneously on benefit trends. Historically, you would have needed to enlist a large consultancy firm to source this.”

Modelling tools are also helping staff to grasp previously unfathomable complexities within benefits. These online calculators allow employees to evaluate all sorts of tricky issues, particularly salary sacrifice and pensions, simply by plugging in a few details.

The next step up in communications technology is online total reward statements, where employers set out all an employee’s perks and give them a total value. Here, online statements are available 24-hours a day, storing all the information in a single database. Staff can also interact, for instance, by clicking a help button to contact HR by email.

In today’s digital world, employers are coming round to the idea of using multimedia communications, with methods stretching from MP3 downloads to plasma screens flashing up the latest benefits news. In May, media group Emap produced a podcast to promote its new share incentive plan. Jonathan Watts-Lay, director of financial education provider JPMorgan Invest, says: “Podcasts are great as you can provide important messages which staff can listen to on the way home.”

Webinars – online presentations combining video and Powerpoint presentations – can also help staff understand their perks.

Some employers’ thoughts are now turning to what is likely to be the next big thing. David Ferrabee, an internal communications expert at Hill & Knowlton, believes social networking sites like Facebook and Bebo are top of the agenda. “These provide a potential vehicle for employers to think about reaching staff differently,” he says.

Facebook lets people set up community groups to reflect their interests, so HR departments could easily set up a group for their organisation, uploading information and sourcing employees’ thoughts. “It would give HR data about employees’ views on the value of benefits better than any other means. They’re using your email address to sign up; you have a right to make material available to them,” says Ferrabee.

If communications consultants get their way, employers will also be promoting benefits via specially-designed internet sites that can be accessed via mobile phones. Kevin Keohane, head of employee engagement at communications consultants SAS, says: “Mobile technology is going to be the next opportunity. A delivery driver could use their handset to get information about benefits since they are not at a desk.”

Yet old media should not be written off. Mark Polson, head of corporate business at Scottish Life, argues that while technology has opened up new possibilities for communicating to staff, in practice, the best results are often achieved through a mix of media.

“Online communication definitely forms part of modern communications strategies, but it’s unlikely to replace the written word. There are significant parts of the working population who would rather receive high-quality printed, written information, or who like a mix of the two,” he explains.

Top tips for using technology to communicate

Whatever technology employers use to communicate perks, there are some basic rules to bear in mind.

Look at how others have done it. Websites such as www.bbc.co.uk have spent millions on finding out what multimedia works so use them for inspiration.

Keep it simple
People hate jargon. Use the employee’s language, not HR and benefits gobbledygook, especially for things like website navigation tools.

Find some guinea pigs
Test out different alternatives on staff. Feedback will highlight potential problems, and show whether software programmes are compatible with everyone’s machines.

Get families on board
Give employees’ families user IDs so they can access websites too. Teenage kids are more used to clicking around the web and may be able to help parents.

Keep human contact
Back up online messages with face-to-face communication, phone chats and roadshows for staff.

Thales’ TV communications†

As a defence electronics company, Thales UK is at home using technology to communicate to staff.

The firm, which has 9,000 employees, uses email, the intranet, and even plasma screens to keep staff up to date with the latest benefits news. Eleanor Inskip, head of internal communications and events, says: “New technology provides us with a much quicker way of communicating with our staff. It also gives us an easy way for us to get feedback.” One of workers’ favourite communication methods is the plasma screens the company has stationed in staff areas, with images rolling round on a loop, which are updated every Friday. “They’re particularly liked by our engineers and younger staff,” adds Inskip.

Nevertheless, she believes that when it comes to benefits, face-to-face communication still has a future, so the firm holds regular staff briefings and roadshows. “We believe that, even with the added technological tools, it is important to communicate orally with staff. There will always be some staff who chose not to seek out information on the intranet or read all the emails that come through,” she explains.